The Confirmation Suit
The theater, poetry , and rebellion are quick in the blood of BRENDAN BEHAN.One of his uncles. Peadar Kearney, wrote the “Soldier’s Song”which became the Irish national anthem. Another unde was a well-known proprietor of a Dublin theater which Brendan attended regularly as a boy.and Brendan’s father first laid eyes on his infant son from his cell in a camp for Republican prisoners.
FOR weeks it was nothing but simony and sacrilege, and the sins crying to heaven for vengeance, the big green catechism in our hands, walking home along the North Circular Road. And after tea, at the back of the brewery wall, with a butt too, to help our wits, What is a pure spirit, and Don’t kill that, Billser has to get a drag out of it yet, What do I mean by apostate, and hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope. The big fellows, who were now thirteen and the veterans of last year’s Confirmation, frightened us and said the bishop would fire us out of the chapel if we didn’t answer his questions, and we’d be left wandering around the streets in a new suit, all dressed up and nowhere to go. The big people said not to mind them; they were only getting it up for us, jealous because they were over their Confirmation, and could never make it again. At school we were in a special room to ourselves, for the last few days, and went around, a special class of people. There were worrying times too, that the bishop would light on you and you wouldn’t be able to answer his questions. Or you might hear the women complaining about the price of boys’ clothes.
“Twenty-two and sixpence for tweed, I’d expect a share in the shop for that. I’ve a good mind to let him go in jersey and pants for that.”
“Quite right, ma’am,” says one to another, backing one another up. “I always say, what matter if they are good and pure.” What had that got to do with it, if you had to go into the chapel in a jersey and pants, and every other kid in a new suit, kid gloves and tan shoes and a school cap. The Cowan brothers were terrified. They were twins and twelve years old, and every old one in the street seemed to be wishing a jersey and pants on them, and saying their poor mother couldn’t be expected to do for two in the one year, and she ought to go down to Sister Monica and tell her to put one back. If it came to that, the Cowans agreed to light it out at the back of the brewery; whoever got best, the other would be put back.
I wasn’t so worried about this. My old fellow was a tradesman and made money most of the time. Besides, my grandmother, who lived at the top of the next house, was a lady of capernosity and function. She had money and lay in bed all day, drinking porter or malt, and taking pinches of snuff, and talking to the neighbors that would call up to tell her the news of the day. She only left her bed to go down one flight of stairs and visit the lady in the back drawing room, Miss McCann.
Miss McCann worked a sewing machine, making habits for the dead. Sometimes girls from our quarter got her to make dresses and costumes, but mostly she stuck to the habits. They were a steady line, she said, and you didn’t have to be always buying patterns, for the fashions didn’t change, not even from summer to winter. They were like a long brown shirt, and a hood attached that was closed over the person’s face before the coffin lid was screwed down. A sort of little banner hung out of one arm, made of the same material, and four silk rosettes in each corner, and in the middle, the letters I.H.S., which mean, Miss McCann said, “I Have Suffered.”
My grandmother and Miss McCann liked me more than any other kid they knew. I liked being liked, and could only admire their taste.
My Aunt Jack, who was my father’s aunt as well as mine, sometimes came down from where she lived, up near the Basin, where the water came from before they started getting it from Wicklow. My Aunt Jack said it was much better water, at that. Miss McCann said she ought to be a good judge. For Aunt Jack was funny. She didn’t drink porter or malt, or take snuff, and my father said she never thought much about men, either. She was also very strict about washing yourself often. My grandmother took a bath every year, whether she was dirty or not, but she was in no way bigoted in the washing line in between times.
Aunt Jack made terrible raids on us now and again, to stop snuff and drink, and make my grandmother get up in the morning and wash herself and cook meals. My grandmother was a gilder by trade, and served her time in one of the best shops in the city, and was getting a man’s wages at sixteen. She liked stuff out of the pork butcher’s and out of cans, but didn’t like boiling potatoes, for she said she was no skivvy, and the chip man was better at it. When she was left alone it was a pleasure to eat with her. She always had cans of lovely things and spicy meat and brawn, and plenty of seasoning, fresh out of the German man’s shop of the road. But after a visit from Aunt Jack, she would have to get up and wash for a week, and she would have to go and make stews and boil cabbage and pig’s cheeks. Aunt Jack was very much up for sheep’s heads too. They were so cheap and nourishing.
But my grandmother only tried it once. She had never had anything to do with sheep’s heads before. When she took it out of the pot and laid it on the plate, she and I sat looking at it, in fear and trembling. It was bad enough going into the pot, but with the soup streaming from its eyes and its big teeth clenched in a very bad temper, it would put the heart crossways in you. My grandmother asked me, in a whisper, if I ever thought sheep could look so vindictive, but that it was more like the head of an old man, and would I for Cod’s sake take it up and throw it out of the window. The sheep kept glaring at us, but I came the far side of it and rushed over to the window and threw it out in a Hash. My grandmother had to drink a Baby Power’s whiskey, for she wasn’t the better of herself.
Afterward she kept what she called her stockpot on the gas. A heap of bones, and, as she said herself, any old muck that would come in handy, to have boiling there, night and day, on a glimmer. She and I ate happily of cooked ham and California pineapple and sockeye salmon, and the pot of good nourishing soup was always on the gas even if Aunt Jack came down the chimney, like the Holy Souls at midnight. My grandmother said she didn’t begrudge the money for the gas. Not when she remembered the looks that sheep’s head was giving her. And all she had to do with the stockpot was to throw in another sup of water, now and again, and a handful of old rubbish the pork butcher would send over, in the way of lights or bones. My Aunt Jack thought a lot about barley, too, so we had a package of that lying beside the gas and threw a sprinkle in anytime her foot was heard on the stairs.
The stockpot bubbled away on the gas for years after, and only when my grandmother was dead did someone notice it. They tasted it, and spat it out just as quick, and wondered what it was. Some said it was paste, and more, that it was gold size, and there were other people and they maintained that it was glue. They all agreed on one thing, that it was dangerous tack to leave lying around where there might be young children, and in the heel of the reel, it went out the same window as the sheep’s head.
MISS MCCANN told my grandmother not to mind Aunt Jack but to sleep as long as she liked in the morning. They came to an arrangement that Miss McCann would cover the landing and keep an eye out. She would call Aunt Jack in for a minute and give the signal by banging the grate, letting on to poke the fire, and have a bit of a conversation with Aunt Jack about dresses, and hats, and habits. One of these mornings, and Miss McCann delaying a fighting action, to give my grandmother time to hurl herself out of bed and into her clothes and give her face the rub of a towel, the chat between Miss McCann and Aunt Jack came to my Confirmation suit.
When I made my First Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent around expensive shops, and I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time, however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line, on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit, if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what these old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember my father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum color, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.
The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. But the coat itself, that was where Aughrim1 was lost.
The lapels were little wee things, like what you’d see in pictures of John L. Sullivan or Gentleman Jim, and the buttons were the size of saucers, or within the bawl of an ass of it, and I nearly cried when I saw them being put on, and ran down to my mother and begged her to get me any sort of suit, even a jersey and pants, than have me set up before the people in this getup. My mother said it was very kind of Aunt Jack and Miss McCann to go to all this trouble and expense, and I was very ungrateful not to appreciate it. My father said that Miss McCann was such a good tailor that people were dying to get into her creations, and her handiwork was to be found in all the best cemeteries. He laughed himself sick at this, and said if it was good enough for him to be sent down to North William Street in plum-colored velvet and lace, I needn’t be getting the needle over a couple of big buttons and little lapels. He asked me not to forget to get up early the morning of my Confirmation and let him see me before he went to work: a bit of a laugh started the day well.
My mother told him to give over and let me alone, and said she was sure it would be a lovely suit and that Aunt Jack would never buy poor material, but stuff that would last forever. That nearly finished me altogether, and I ran through the hall up to the corner, fit to cry my eyes out, only I wasn’t much of a hand at crying. I went more for cursing, and I cursed all belonging to me, and was hard at it on my father and wondering why his lace collar hadn’t choked him when I remembered that it was a sin to go on like that, and f going up for Confirmation, and I had to simmer down and live in fear of the day I’d put on that jacket.
The days passed, and I was fitted and refitted, and every old one in the house came up to look at the suit, and took a pinch of snuff and a sup out of the jug, and wished me long life and the health to wear and tear it, and they spent that much time viewing it around, back, belly, and sides, that Miss McCann hadn’t time to make the overcoat, and like an answer to a prayer, f was brought down to Talbot Street and dressed out in a dinging overcoat, belted, like a grown-up man’s. And my shoes and gloves were dear and dandy, and I said to myself that there was no need to let anyone see the suit with its little lapels and big buttons. I could keep the topcoat on all day, in the chapel and going around afterward.
The night before Confirmation day Miss McCann handed over the suit to my mother, and kissed me, and said not to bother thanking her. She would do more than that for me, and she and my grandmother cried and had a drink on the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow, in the space of twelve years, which they didn’t seem to consider a great deal of time. My father said to my mother, and I getting bathed before the fire, that since I was born Miss McCann thought the world of me. When my mother was in hospital, she took me into her place till my mother came out, and it near broke her heart to give me back.
In the morning I got up, and Mrs. Rooney in the next room shouted in to my mother that her Liam was still stalling and not making any move to get out of it, and she thought she was cursed; Christmas or Easter, Communion or Confirmation. it would drive a body into Riddleys, which is the mad part of Grangegorman, and she wondered she wasn’t driven out of her mind and above in the puzzle factory years ago. So she shouted again at Liam to get up, and washed and dressed. And my mother shouted at me, though I was already knotting my tie, but you might as well be out of the world as out of fashion, and they kept it up like a pair of madwomen, until at last Liam and I were ready and he came in to show my mother his clothes. She handseled him a tanner, which he put in his pocket, and Mrs. Rooney called me in to show her my clothes. I just stood at her door and didn’t open my coat, but just grabbed the sixpence out of her hand and ran up the stairs like the hammers of hell. She shouted at me to hold on a minute, she hadn’t seen my suit, but I muttered something about it not being lucky to keep a bishop waiting and ran on.
The church was crowded, boys on one side and girls on the other, and the altar ablaze with lights and flowers, and a throne for the bishop to sit on when he wasn’t confirming. There was a cheering crowd outside, drums rolled, trumpeters from Jim Larkin’s band sounded the salute. The bishop came in, and the doors were shut. In short order I joined the queue to the rails, knelt and was whispered over and touched on the cheek. I had my overcoat on the whole time, though it was warm, and I was in a lather of sweat waiting for the hymns and the sermon.
The lights grew brighter and I got warmer, was carried out fainting. But though I didn’t mind them loosening my tie, I clenched firmly my overcoat, and nobody saw the jacket with the big buttons and the little lapels. When I got home, I got into bed, and my father said I went into a weakness just as the bishop was giving us the pledge. He said this was a master stroke and showed real presence of mind.
Sunday after Sunday, my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every weekend. In a passionate temper my mother said she would show me up and tell Miss McCann, and up like a shot with her, for my mother was always slim and light on her feet as a feather, and in next door. When she came back she said nothing, but sat at the fire looking into it. I didn’t really believe she would tell Miss McCann. And I put on the suit and thought I would go in and tell her I was wearing it this week-night, because I was going to Lhe Queen’s with my brothers. I ran next door and upstairs, and every step was more certain and easy that my mother hadn’t told her. I ran, shoved in the door, saying: “Miss Mc! Miss Mc! Rory and Sean and I are going to the Queen’s —”
She was bent over the sewing machine, and all I could see was the top of her old gray head, and the rest of her shaking with crying, and her arms folded under her head on a bit of habit where she had been finishing the I.H.S. I ran downstairs and back into our place, and my mother was sitting at the fire, sad and sorry, but saying nothing.
I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years without one complaint from a customer.
At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.
- A battle in 1689 where the Irish were defeated.↩